JONESBORO, Ga. – On his first day on the job, the new sheriff called 27 employees into his office, stripped them of their badges, fired them, and had rooftop snipers stand guard as they were escorted out the door.
The move Monday by Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill provoked an angry reaction and prompted a judge to order him to rehire the employees.
“It appears … that employees of the Sheriff were terminated without cause” and in violation of the county’s civil service rules, Judge Stephen Boswell wrote in granting a 30-day restraining order.
Hill, 39, defended the firings and said the new sheriff has the right to shake up the department in whatever way he feels necessary. He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he fired the employees to “maintain the integrity of the department.”
“A lot of people are under the impression that the sheriff’s office is under civil service laws,” he said. “But my research shows the employees work at the pleasure of the sheriff.”
The firings had a racial overtone. Hill was among a spate of black candidates elected last year in a county once dominated by rural whites. The county seat was the setting for the fictional plantation Tara in “Gone With the Wind.”
The fired employees included four of the highest-ranking officers, all of them white. Hill told the newspaper their replacements would be black.
Another of the newly elected black officials, Eldrin Bell, called the move illegal and filed for the restraining order granted by the judge. Bell is the new county commission chairman and former Atlanta police chief.
Hill said the manner in which he fired the workers – including taking some deputies home in vans normally used to transport prisoners because the deputies were barred from using county cars – was necessary.
He cited the assassination of Sheriff Derwin Brown in neighboring DeKalb County in 2000. Brown was gunned down in the driveway of his home three days before he was to be sworn in. Former Sheriff Sidney Dorsey was found guilty of plotting to kill him and sentenced to life in prison.
“Derwin Brown sent out letters to 25 to 30 people letting them know they would not be reappointed when he took office,” Hill said.
The sheriff’s department employs 345 workers.